What to Look for in a Community College

by Emily Guy Birken

It used to be that community college was regarded as only a place for older students needing to take classes or brush up on skills—and not as a viable alternative for a student just out of high school. However, the stigma of community college is starting to fade as more and more students (and their parents) realize that getting a community college education can be infinitely cheaper than the traditional route.

What to look for in a community collegeEven though nearly every community boasts a community college, not all of these institutions are created equal. Depending on what you are hoping to achieve through your community college education, you may want to drive a little to get to the right school. According to Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, “Somebody who is choosing a community college should be as careful as they are in choosing a four-year college.”

Here is what you need to look for when you are deciding which community college to attend:

If You Want to Transfer to a Four-Year College or University

1. Start by checking your community college’s success rate. The group College Measures has created a chart measuring the graduation/transfer rate of students within three years of enrolling at a particular community college. While the success rate of a school cannot predict how any particular student will do, it can give you a good idea if the school is well equipped to help students complete their education.

2. Find out about guaranteed transfer programs. Some schools are set up so that you can take the credits you earn at community college, and use them at a local four-year college or university. These programs generally have certain credit and grade point average requirements, which you will want to know ahead of time.

3. Look into remedial programs if applicable. If you are starting at community college because you need some remedial courses before you start thinking about transferring, be sure to ask about how those courses are taught. Unfortunately, many community colleges have a high failure rate in remedial courses. Determine what the college’s success rate is in the particular courses you need, and ask questions about what kind of support is available (such as tutoring) for students in those courses.

If You Plan to Get Your Degree From Your Community College

1. Research specific programs at each school. If you know that you want to go into nursing or education, for example, talk to a professional in your chosen field to find out what community colleges offer the best programs in your chosen field. It’s also important to remember that a specific program in a community college may have a higher (or lower) success rate than the college as a whole, so be sure to do thorough research.

2. Look into honors programs. Community colleges with low graduation and transfer numbers may offer an honors track program for students who plan to complete their degree there (or transfer to another school). These programs can be geared more toward the traditional college student, while the college overall has a higher age demographic. The National Collegiate Honors Council lists community colleges with these sorts of programs.

3. Audit a class. One of the best ways to determine if a school will meet your needs (particularly if you plan to stay there for the long haul), is to sit in on a class in your field. There is no better way to find out if the teaching philosophy, class size, and classroom atmosphere will fit in with your learning goals and needs.

The Bottom Line

Finding the right community college is just as important a matter as finding the right four-year college or university. When it comes to your education, you deserve a school that is good fit, where you will learn and grow.

Published or updated July 25, 2012.
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Manette @ Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance

Great tips! We all know that most high school students would often choose a university than a community college. But if they will check their community college before scouting a university outside their city or state, they will definitely be saving a lot of money while in college.


2 Debt Free Teen

My community college has an honors program which gets me priority registration. This almost guarantees that I can get the schedule and teachers I want. They also have the highest transfer rate in the state. I got lucky that it’s close to where I live. And at $50 a unit , it’s a steal!


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